It looms large on the horizon, the hulk of the S.S. United States, as she lies in port in Philadelphia. Her stacks rise above the neighboring dock buildings, and it’s possible to use them as landmarks rather than following GPS directions as you chart a course to see the once grand ship in her current forlorn and decrepit state.
This ship — and the search for a traditional Philly cheesesteak — took us to the city of brotherly love this summer.
We found our ship with ease, and we lingered there. Remembering our first encounter with this vessel, my husband and I didn’t speak. We just gazed through the chain links at this once gleaming passenger liner with a history that is irrevocably intertwined with ours.
We met the S.S. United States, and one another, on the same day in August 50 years ago at the port in Le Havre, France. The ship was just a teenager at the time. We were young as well, and impressionable.
She was a looker, massive and shiny and silent, but aswarm with crew going about their duties. We were impressed by her presence and by her glamor; she took our breath away. We had some other experiences with her, but her days at sea came to an end barely three years later.
Our story continues.
This summer, as we mapped our road trip north, it became a priority for us to see the grand old ship. Philadelphia was miles out of the way, but we took the detour. Our hearts were in our throats as we first spied those distinctive smokestacks. We were buoyed by the hope that this old lady might actually sail the seas once again.
Unfortunately, early this month, we learned that the plan to refurbish her as a cruise ship is not feasible. The S.S. United States has been out of service for 47 years; she has languished at the dock in Philadelphia for more than 20 years now, longer than she sailed! And, though she is deemed still structurally sound, the dream that she might again carry passengers has died.
There is still some hope that the S.S. United States will be saved from the scrap heap and turned into a floating “history book.” She is, after all, an engineering marvel; this last American flagship set a world speed record on her maiden voyage. It has never been broken. Is it so hard to believe that others could be inspired by looking up at her towering stacks, standing at her railing, or exploring her labyrinthian interior. Not for us.
The experience certainly stayed with me and my husband throughout our years!
As we again gazed at her with awe, she sat behind locked gates, no longer shiny and glamorous, but impressive nonetheless!
We left the docks finally, and found a Philly cheesesteak at a tiny Tony Luke’s on Oregon Ave., almost in the shadow of Interstate 95 South. There were only seven or eight tables inside, but the line snaked through the building and extended into the parking lot beyond. It took some time to reach the order window, but not long at all for our traditional beef and melted cheese sandwiches to be ready. Miraculously, there were two seats at a table. The wait was worth it; Philadelphia’s signature food treat was the second delight of the day!
We had come to Philly for the memories. And we left well satisfied.